Using the cloud for democratizing data analytics in the enterprise

Here is a diagram of my end-to-end vision for a data platform, which I have presented at the Bioinformatics Strategy Meeting Europe (London, 12/07/2016).

data-platform-vision

Data feeders, such as data capture devices, field sensors, IoT, genomic sequencers, etc., generate data which goes into a Working Data Store.

The Working Data Store (on premises) could use technologies such as Hadoop. Ideally data sets should be identified through a DOI-like system. Data owners/authors should be identified through ORCID. The Working Data Store would  feed a Reference Data Store.

Electronic Lab Notebook systems, and Lab Information Management Systems would also generate data. They would also feed the Working Data Store and potentially the Reference Data Store.

The Reference Data Store (on premises) has all the characteristics associated with the management of active data sets.

Other significant data source are the systems of reference in the organisation (ECM, ERP, CRM, etc). as well as cloud-based data sources

A federated data repository interface is the mechanism through which the access to data across the different repositories would be gained (Working and Reference Data Stores, Systems of Reference and Cloud-based data sources).

The interface would also offer access to the on-site Compute facilities, as well as to cloud-based compute facilities (Amazon, Azure etc).

Through a set of Web APIs, the interface would expose the data as needed to a web platform for publication.

On-site analytics and visualisation tools (e.g. R, Matlab, Galaxy, etc) would access the data through the same interface.

Cloud based analytics and visualisation tools (such as semantic/knowledge based languages with rich,, predefined functions and models for analysis across different domains) would also interact with this data through the federated interface. In addition these would link to cloud-based knowledge repositories directly. This category also includes simpler tools that are available more readily across the enterprise – e.g. PowerBI.

Some of the challenges re data analytics are:

  • Availability of tools across the organisation
    • skills needed, and learning curve;
    • costs;
    • scale-ability and performance.
  • Data availability across the organisation
    • How fit for purpose is the data, and whether it is granular enough;
    • Compliance requirements;
    • Data quality.
  • Interfacing the tools with the data (particularly relevant as some of the cloud tools are in their infancy).

Further reading:

Creative Commons Licence
This article and the diagrams/images included, by Florentin Albu, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

A mid-life crisis of back-office business tech

midlifecrisistechIn 2016, the back-office business tech marks the 45th anniversary of Email on its computer networks. It had 16 years of nagging Skype messaging, and a 15-year love-hate relationship with Share Point. More recently, it has started using a flashy new cloud ERP solution. Is it having a mid-life crisis?

On a more serious note, during the past 45 years of modern computing, we have witnessed a fantastic technology progress which has been the direct or indirect source of business value in companies large and small. We have also entered the digital age, with everything virtual or “in the cloud”, enormous computing power at the tip of our fingers, instant access to data anywhere, and overall, a level of tech innovation that permeates through, and positively changes, all aspects of our daily lives.
Looking at business-supporting technology (think your regular back-office environment), we have also seen huge improvements over this period. Computers that are faster, smaller, cheaper – to the point of becoming a commodity. Smart devices. Applications that enhance productivity & collaboration in real time. Tools that help us visualise and interact with data, bridging virtual and real. Paperless environments. Decision support with advanced analytics based on huge amounts of information.
And yet, I believe that the rate of innovation in business-supporting tech is slowing down. In fact, I would argue that over the past 5-10 years we have just seen more of the same, with a dressing of the Moore’s Law: tech that gets faster, smaller, or with nicer interfaces, without being fundamentally different. Like a rock star in a mid-life crisis, back-office tech releases old hits, re-packaged and delivered with a few extras. And like the rock fans, users are talking about the times when the original hits really made a difference.

Where is the problem?
The problem that I see here is not with the technology, it’s with the business process, and here is why.
Technology supports the business processes which we have put in place. It ideally should automate or eliminate the repetitive and low-value steps of the process. It should support us, in bringing value to the process through our judgement, creativity and innovation.
By optimising the underlying technology of a business process, we can improve the corresponding steps of that process: e.g. switching from fax to email will make information transfer instantaneous. However, optimising the technology that supports a process is not the same with optimising the process. This is where I believe that many businesses have failed, resulting in staff becoming victims of the Moore’s law, and investments in technology not delivering the expected value.
While computers and systems get faster, humans still require about the same amount of time to analyse data and reach conclusions, take decisions, etc. While we can have instantaneous exchange of information, this does not mean that we can process it at the same rate at which we receive it – and most of us have our inboxes to prove it. By introducing new technology without a review of the business processes, there is a chance of improving a step in the process while making the end-to-end processes less effective.

Is there a solution?
Whether the tech improvements are driven by vendors (e.g. upgrades included with your licenses) or by technology refresh programs, an analysis of the business processes supported by this tech is a must. If your business can afford it, having external advice on business process improvement can be very helpful. Management consultants come at varying levels of experience and cost, and doing your research beforehand can save money and ensure effective results.
There is, also, a self-help solution: democratising business process mapping and analysis across the enterprise. You can have a good start by offering staff training in documenting business processes (e.g. BPMN 2.0) and encouraging critical process thinking. This would not replace external expertise; however, it would be an approach beneficial in the long-term. It will not only instil innovation and empower those involved (as change is driven by internal sources rather than being imposed externally), but it will also create a distributed team that has the understanding of your business processes, and can analyse technology impact.

Conclusion
Shiny new tech might not be the solution to your back-office business mid-life crisis. You need to step back and ask “How would I do this if I were to start from scratch?” every now and again. Are your business processes (or their steps) still relevant, particularly in this digital age?

Do you have an opinion about this subject? Don’t just keep it to yourself, share it here:
What 3 back-end, tech-enabled business processes would you change if you were to start your business from scratch, and how?

Less pressure to upgrade to Windows 10, if you’re in the cloud

Here is an article on upgrading business desktops to Windows 10, by  (@steveranger), published on  March 15, 2016 in TechRepublic’s section on Enterprise Software.

My position?

<begin quote>

Anyone who has already migrated to the cloud or Office 365, and who is using Windows 7 or 8, will have less pressure to upgrade to Windows 10, said Florentin Albu, CIO at Rothamsted Research.

“The desktop OS continues to lose its relevance, and this makes it more tricky to justify projects of this nature. Usability and the new generation workforce are significant factors to consider, however these alone won’t be a driver. A company’s desktop hardware upgrade cycle should offer a good opportunity to deploy Windows 10,” he said.

<end quote>

Read the full article here:

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/windows-10-businesses-are-ready-to-upgrade/

 

A practical guide to effective social media publishing

9733284483_e147eda73b_zHere is a practical guide on how to publish more effectively on social media channels. Please note: I am sharing this in case others might find some inspiration; I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this post; there are other tools that might offer similar functionality – these are just the ones I am using.

This article describes a workflow for individuals. For teams that work together to publish content on social networks there are different plans from Buffer or different tools altogether that might be need to be considered (e.g. Hootsuite).

Tools used:
>>Scheduler:
This is a key element in the workflow and after looking at different tools, I have settled for Buffer which is an online service with client applications for iOS & Android, and which comes also with a plugin for Chrome. Buffer takes your posts and schedules them for publication according to a schedule that you define, which is channel specific (e.g. one for Twitter, another one for LinkedIn). It then provides some analytics for the posts that have been published. Buffer offers a free level of service as well as paid ones, that have richer scheduling options.

>>News reader apps (on mobile device)
The one that I use most of the time is News360 (iOS & Android). In this app one can subscribe to a broad range of news channels. I also use Flipboard (iOS & Android) which has the option of adding RSS feeds.

>>Optimization service:
Timing is very important in order to get better impact with the social media posts. There is quite a bit of information on the Internet advising what are best times to post on LinkedIn, Facebook etc. To optimize the timing of my posts I have used Tweriod. This is a service that analyses your Twitter audience and defines a set of times which are optimal for posting. I have then configured these times in Buffer. Tweriod offers a free analysis as well as paid ones. There are quite a few other similar services available, including one from Buffer.

Putting everything together:
First you need to create an account with Buffer and to give it permission to post on your behalf on different social networks. Then you define the schedules for publication, which are specific to each channel. Once this is set up it is time to add posts to the queue for publication.

In my case I scan the news in the evening or while travelling if I find something worth sharing, I send it to Buffer. From my iPhone this is quite simple – while in a News360 article, press “Share” and Buffer is listed as an option. Select it, and the link to the article with a short description text is shown in Buffer. I choose the channels on which it want it published, add some comments/tags, and the app will queue it for delivery.
The source does not have to be News 360. Most of the news apps have the possibility of sharing an article using “Share” (on iPhone) – and Buffer will be presented as an option. Even if this option is not available, one can create a post manually directly in Buffer, including link, text, images etc.

Image published under Creative Commons by Yoel Ben-Avraham.

A view on 2016 IT budgets

Here is an article on the IT budgets that CIOs control, by  (@steveranger) on October 1, 2015 in ZDNET’s special feature on IT Budgets 2016.

My position?

<begin quote>

Florentin Albu, CIO at Rothamsted Research, said investment will vary by sector: “I believe that certain government-related sectors will have to adjust to budget reductions, and implicitly investment in IT in these areas will not be on the up. At the same time, I believe that the commercial sector shows an increased appetite for investing in IT solutions, and this will be reflected in more generous budgets in 2016.”

Another complication: deciding what is, and what isn’t, part of the IT budget is getting harder, he said.

“IT is used very loosely now, to cover everything from data and information management, to infrastructure, to enterprise systems etcetera, so the line between business budgets and IT budgets will become increasingly blurry,” he noted.

<end quote>

Read the full article here:

http://www.zdnet.com/article/when-it-comes-to-it-budgets-bigger-isnt-always-better/

Article re-published in the French edition of ZDNET:

<begin quote>

Florentin Albu, DSI chez Rothamsted Research, déclare ainsi que l’investissement diffèrera selon le secteur. “Je pense que certains secteurs liés au secteur public devront ajuster leur budget à la baisse, et implicitement l’investissement IT dans ces domaines ne sera pas orienté à la hausse. Dans le même temps, je pense que le secteur privé affiche un appétit croissant en termes d’investissement dans des solutions IT, et cela se traduira pas des budgets 2016 plus généreux.”

Une autre complication : décider de ce qui appartient ou non à un budget IT devient de plus en plus difficile, ajoute-t-il.

“L’IT est utilisée de façon très lâche maintenant, pour couvrir tout, des données à la gestion de l’information, l’infrastructure, en passant par les systèmes d’entreprise, etc., de sorte que la frontière entre les budgets métiers et les budgets informatiques deviendra de plus en plus floue” juge Florentin Albu.

<end quote>

Read the full article here:

http://www.zdnet.fr/actualites/budgets-it-la-taille-n-est-pas-l-essentiel-pour-les-dsi-39830026.htm

The challenge of storing large amounts of data

Here is an article on the challenges of storing large amounts of data, by  (@steveranger) on July 1, 2015 in ZDNET’s special feature on The Evolution of Enterprise Storage.

My position?

<begin quote>

And as Florentin Albu CIO Rothamsted Research, said: “Storing data is relatively cheap once the foundation of storage and backup infrastructure is in place. The headache comes from the side of data management, ensuring the data can be retrieved with a high degree of relevance and – specifically for large data sets – that its accuracy and integrity is maintained during processing.”

<end quote>

Read the full article here:

http://www.zdnet.com/article/battling-the-giant-data-monster/

Real Madrid & Microsoft: football and Business Intelligence

RealMadrid_Ra'ed QutenaWhat’s the link between football and digital transformation? Real Madrid announced back in November a strategic partnership with Microsoft, having in mind the digital transformation of the club.

Yesterday they have published an update, which shows that as with most digital transformation, this one focuses on the customers – that’s us, the fans – and it starts with data. The ambitious partnership looks at an evolution of the club’s data visualisation, making this a more immersive experience for the fans.

Access from any device (hopefully the Surface and Nokia gear in the video are not an indication of a platform lock-in) will be complemented by the ability to build statistics and comparisons between players and teams.

The notable point is Microsoft’s statement regarding the use of Office 365 Power BI (Business Intelligence) tool. This new cloud solution helped Microsoft achieve the “leader” title for agile BI in a Forrester ranking.

Watch the video here.

Further info re Power BI and Forrester here.

Photo published under Creative Commons by Raed qutena

Management: back to basics

mgmt basicsLet me tell you about something I call the “ER syndrome”. A few years back, a friend of mine in the medical profession jokingly said that if you go to the Emergency Room with a headache, chances are that you will get a Computer Tomography Scan before someone thinks to give you a regular painkiller. With everyone being in the “emergency mind-set”, common conditions can be overlooked. Of course, doctors are more professional than that, and the point that I am trying to make is that in the complex world in which we operate as managers, sometimes we tend to forget about the simple things. How do we avoid the “ER syndrome”? By being well-anchored to good management practice.

Here are my favourite resources on management basics and not-so-basics, available in three different media types (a traditional book, web articles and audio podcasts) to suit any moment of spare time. These can equally help junior as well as seasoned managers, as they bring tried-and-tested good practice examples, and also fresh perspectives on concepts that one might have learned about but not practiced.

What is your go-to management reference?

Resources:

The Essential Drucker”, Peter Drucker, 2001 (book can be found at all major online book retailers)

Mind Tools

The Mind Tools is an initiative started by James Manktelow in 1996. The freely available Toolkit is an excellent resource where one can review a broad range of concepts, from strategy, to team management, to leadership. Each area is explained clearly, and in most cases short video presentations or tutorials are further supporting the points covered in text. A broad collection of management and analysis methods and tools is found here as well, explained and categorized. You can find pretty much everything from SWOT analysis, to the Hoshin planning system to the SCAMPER improvement technique. The Mind Tools were awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise (the UK’s top business award) in 2012.

Manager-Tools

This is a different type of resource and equally valuable: this is a collection of podcasts with managerial and career advice, from Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman, from the management consultant company Manager-Tools. The podcasts can be downloaded, or you can listen to them on the site, and they cover a broad range of management issues (see their Universe Map), offering sound and down-to-earth advice. I would consider the Manager-Tools podcast “mandatory” listening for young managers, and a good reference point for more experienced ones. The separate stream on career advice (Career Tools) is simply just great, and had a positive impact in my personal development (so thank you, Mike & Mark).

 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with the sites/companies mentioned above.

 

What’s your digital story saying about you?

digital_self_smallAre you in control of your digital self? Where do you stand on the issue of privacy in a digital society? Since you are likely reading this on a social network, do you understand the current privacy concerns?

Materials trying to answer these questions are usually known for curing insomnia, so notable exceptions are worth being brought to attention.

Al Jazeera had a refreshing approach to privacy, Big Data and Digital Society in a recent publication caled “Terms of Service”. To make it easier to follow the concepts, the authors Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld chose the format of a short comic book/novel. The approach worked on me: I simply could not put it down until reaching the end, and while I am not a fan of comic books, I considered it a rewarding 20 minutes read.

The authors write about privacy in the Digital Society, giving a useful short history of how the matter evolved to become a concern, and how this concern is accentuated by the Internet of Things and Big Data. The novel explains using Dan Geers’s framework of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Questions” how we tend to go down the slippery slope of trading off privacy for features and perceived cost savings. It also brings in the views of Prof. Scott Peppet on how peer pressure leads to more people revealing their private information on social networks.

By connecting all the digital dots that a person leaves in cyberspace, a “story” is formed. The authors stress how important it is to understand who gets to tell the story. If the story is told by someone else than its subject, it often leaves that person in the position of having to defend the truth. This can be a difficult task, and an example is given of an employer judging how well the prospective employee would fit based on their social media profile. The novel points out that particularly younger generations instinctively try to control their image through an affluent digital presence that allows them to tell their version of their digital story first.
Trading immaterial personal information for immediate tangible benefits (e.g. discounts or use of products) gradually builds up a digital profile. The Digital Society by its nature offers unprecedented access to data and enables companies and governments to draw conclusions about individuals based on these profiles. The examples given in the book (e.g. linking one’s social network to their fitness data to produce a credit score) show that such conclusions are not necessarily intuitive for, nor under the control of, the respective individual. However this doesn’t stop these conclusions from significantly impacting the person’s lifestyle, financial position, etc.

The novel concludes by highlighting the constant trade-off that we make in a Digital Society between privacy and convenience – with the latter winning most of the time.
The foundation of our Digital Society is being built at full speed. This evolution brings increased benefits and – no doubt – increased complexity and risks. The rules of the new game need to strike the right balance between convenience and privacy, and in order to do so, we as a society need to have a broader understanding of these concepts. This is why the timing and format of Al Jazeera’s publication seems to be just right.

What is your position on privacy and digital society? Are social networks a necessary evil, or have you already put on the tinfoil hat? How successful are you in mastering your digital self?

You can read Al Jazeera’s comic novel “Terms of Service” here:

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2014/terms-of-service

 

Dawn of the data-centric computing

data-centric_computing In what seems to be a major step forward in solving big data problems and advancing research capabilities, IBM announced today that it was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy a $325 million contract for building the world’s most advanced data-centric super-computer, by 2017.

The data-centric concept is explained by IBM as one which “moves much of the processing to the places where the data is stored, whether that’s within a single computing system, in a network of computers, or far away in sensors tracking the weather or monitoring an energy pipeline”. This is needed because, particularly in the context of big data, one of the main challenges is not the actual processing power, but the speed at which vast quantities of data can be transported to and from the processing facilities.

Until now, most hopes for revolutionizing big data processing were with quantum computing. Quantum computers are particularly suitable to tackle big data because of their ability to simultaneously process different approaches to the same problem. Progress in the area of quantum computing has been slower than expected, because among other issues, problems need to be defined in a whole new way in order to be solved using this technology.

For quantum computing, the Canadian company D-Wave leads the game with high profile clients such as Google, NASA and (reportedly) NSA

In the new contract with DoE, IBM brings the data-centric computing approach, and has joined efforts with NVidia (GPU and interconnectivity) and Mellanox Technologies (interconnectivity).

The level of investment, effort and risk situates these projects well out of reach for the majority of regular companies and research institutions. However, with more options developing, we are likely to see new methods and approaches for dealing with big data, which will will be gradually mainstreamed.

A few links:

– the concept of data-centric computing explained in (rather) simple terms:

http://www.engadget.com/2014/11/14/ibm-data-centric-computing/

– IBM’s data-centric design vision:

http://research.ibm.com/articles/datacentricdesign/

– a video (trying) to describe some quantum computing terms:

http://mashable.com/2013/10/13/google-quantum-computing-video/